Livingston deservedly defeated Rangers as they moved into third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Joel Sked looks at why the West Lothian side have been a welcome addition to the league.
Craig Thomson had just signalled the end of Livingston’s momentous 1-0 win over Rangers to lift them into third place when defender Declan Gallagher gestured to numerous Rangers players, effectively telling them to get ‘away up the road’.
It was combative and antagonistic, feeding into the stereotype which has built around the team since last season when it first looked plausible they could secure back-to-back promotions and reach the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Meanwhile, manager Gary Holt summed up the team’s mentality after the victory.
“We know we’re relegation favourites,” he said. “We want to maybe stick two fingers up and say we’re good enough to stay up.”
It paints a picture of Livingston as an unwelcome guest at a house party: an unruly and loud presence, playing beer-pong with an expensive bottle of champagne that was being saved for a special occasion and feeding Sambuca and kettle chips to the dog, all the while the rest of the party are discussing the merits of pairing white wine with seafood or Labour’s radical tax reforms.
Except the Ladbrokes Premiership party is more akin to The Hangover and Livingston are the tiger lurking in the bathroom. They add a wild-card factor to what is an already enjoyable, rowdy and impressive ‘celebration’ of football.
Seven games into the league season and Livi sit third. And deservedly so as they continue to impress. Their first seven fixtures have included five games against last season’s top six. They were defeated by Celtic but picked up draws against Kilmarnock and league leaders Hearts, while gaining wins over Hibs and Rangers.
Steven Gerrard’s men were the latest to falter against the West Lothian side. They didn’t just falter, they were soundly beaten. If it had finished Livingston 4 Rangers 0 it would have been a shocking result on so many levels. Yet, those who watched the game would not have been surprised in the slightest.
The latest result was yet another blow to the ego of all those - and there were many - who tipped and expected Livingston to be propping up the league table now and come the season end.
From a distance such a prediction was understandable. The man who had led the club to back-to-back promotions David Hopkin had left despite not having another managerial post lined up, while his replacement was Kenny Miller, appointed player/manager.
Something didn’t smell right. And that only intensified when Miller, bizarrely yet unsurprisingly, became the first manager to leave their post after only seven weeks in the job.
Such upheaval in a short space of time goes against any sort of rationale which would see a team exceed all expectations. Yet, here we are. Livingston are in a European spot, albeit with the league still at a nascent stage.
What many underestimated was the team. This is a tight-knit squad which has largely been together for three seasons. In the final home game of their League One winning campaign of 2016-2017, Liam Kelly, Declan Gallagher, Craig Halkett, Alan Lithgow, Rafa De Vita and Scott Pittman all started. Keeghan Jacobs and Nicky Cadden were on the bench, while Shaun Byrne was unavailable.
Not only are all nine still with the club, they are key individuals. While Cadden has been used regularly as a sub and De Vita is yet to feature, the other seven form the Livingston spine, an impenetrable wall. Only Hearts have conceded fewer goals, yet Livingston are the only team to have kept five league clean sheets.
The midfield trio in Jacobs, Pittman and Byrne complement one another so well. Jacobs sits at the base allowing the latter duo to engage opponents. Pittman is so effective and getting up in support of the attack and running beyond, as seen with his early chance against Rangers.
Byrne is reminiscent of N’Golo Kante. He goes hunting, snapping into challenges and making it very uncomfortable for opponents. But he is more than just energy, he reads the game well to break it up and is composed on the ball.
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The trio are supported by Scott Robinson, a real livewire on his return to the top-flight, and Dolly Menga, who has been an astute piece of business. They defend from the front with the latter buying into the club’s ethos. He provides selfless running and offers a more mobile and physical focal point than veteran Lee Miller who is currently out injured.
During Miller’s short period in charge he curiously opted for Steven Saunders instead of Alan Lithgow in a three-man backline. Once Miller had exited, Lithgow was immediately restored.
The defensive axis of Lithgow, Gallgher and Halkett is the team’s backbone. Their priority is as follows: defend at all costs. Captain Halkett has been one of the best, and most consistent, players in the league this season.
Each individual adds to and embraces the collective. Last season Hopkin praised the squad’s professionalism and desire to eke out every morsel of talent. They look like a team who have been coached to within an ounce of their lives. Watching them move about the pitch in tandem can be hypnotic.
It’s this which has allowed Holt to come in and hit the ground running. Almost as if this Livingston squad simply needs a custodian rather than manager.
Much has been made of David Martindale’s involvement at Livingston and how much influence he has. It does, at times, look as if he is the manager. He’s often a vocal presence on the edge of the technical area, greeting players first when they come off and after the win over Rangers he was on the pitch giving Steve Lawson coaching instructions. That being said, it works.
As does Livingston’s game plan. They are simply very, very good at the football they play. The team are no doubt capable of keeping the ball and playing a more possession-based style. But that isn’t what has taken them into the top flight and into the top three.
They are unapologetically direct - playing the highest number of long passes per 90 minutes in the league - and utilise the long throw to their advantage. When they sense an opportunity to put the ball into the box they take it, with the team recording the highest percentage of aerial duels won.
“We keep our shape and we defend well and try to get teams on the counter attack,” explained Pittman.
“We start every game with a point and the manager says ‘just try not to lose it’. We try to press the other team, get in people’s faces, don’t make it easy for them.”
It is no surprise they have played the fewest passes and recorded the lowest share of possession in the league. It is effective, efficient and enjoyable, certainly in the eyes of this writer.
They suffocate teams with their high energy approach and look to attack centrally. They have hit the fewest crosses per 90 minutes but only Hibs have played a higher number of through passes, while they have the second highest percentage of shots on target, behind Rangers.
Once again, their artificial pitch was brought up, just like a raft of black pellets off the surface, during the Sky Sports broadcast. Holt’s view is as refreshing as it is admirable and honest.
“We are quite happy if people hammer it,” he told BBC Scotland. “It’s a massive advantage for us. We train on it every day and we love it. It makes it quicker.”
Teams can moan all they want when they go to the Tony Macaroni Arena, they won’t be afforded an apology. They will simply have to adjust and compete. Fail to do so and Livi will run through, around and over them, satisfied with the three points as opponents bemoan the newcomers and their pitch on their way up the road.
Like Gallagher after the Rangers game, Livingston will continue to rub opposition teams, players and fans up the wrong way. It will matter little to the club as they show what’s capable with a well-executed gameplan while sticking two fingers up at the doubters along the way.